Monday, November 15, 2010

The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band

For those of us who were not old enough to actually attend rock shows in the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s, I believe it’s hard to really get a feel for what it was like to be there in person, hearing and seeing these bands live, reveling in the experience. Audio recordings are only somewhat helpful in trying to be inside the experience. We read and hear stories about the great rock bands of that era, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones and hear them called the greatest rock bands of all time and based solely on their studio albums, I have no argument with those claims. But still, when you’ve only seen The Rolling Stones in the ‘80s and ‘90s and heard live recordings from their classic era of dubious sonic clarity, it’s easy to disregard the title of “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” as hyperbole.

So it’s a fantastic treasure unearthed when you get to see a high quality video recording of The Stones in their prime, as with the recently re-released Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones, filmed on the infamous 1972 American tour just after the release of the juggernaut Exile On Main Street.

This is quintessential rock ‘n’ roll power, pure and simple. It’s The Stones in what many believe is their finest hour, firing on all cylinders, a clean and lean rock ‘n’ roll machine, debauching and rocking across the US. Jagger’s kinetic frenzy and showmanship charm seem to hold a genuine power over his audience. His vocals may suffer at the expense of all that dancing, but watching him you know he was the penultimate rock ‘n’ roll frontman for good reason. Keith Richards’ tight but loose swagger on rhythm guitar has really come into its own on the Let It Bleed-Sticky Fingers-Exile On Main Street songs. Young gun Mick Taylor on lead guitar is by far the best foil for Keef the band has ever had and even though he stands stock still and expressionless in these performances, his playing brims with vitality. Even minimalist Charlie Watts lets fly with a few power fills on drums. Highlights include a blistering All Down The Line and an electric Dead Flowers with Mick and Keith sharing one microphone.

So if you are doubtful or even just curious about why The Stones are dubbed the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, watching this footage of them live in 1972 may leave you nodding your head in understanding or maybe even dancing around your living room.

Monday, October 11, 2010

“Buy me a drink, sing me a song, take me as I come ‘cause I can’t stay long…”

In general, although I have been a follower for many years, I have a big sense of disappointment about Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers concerts in the past 10 years because of his play-it-safe, please-the-mainstream-casual-fan approach. Even though his radio hits are very good songs, there are many many equally good songs in his songbook that almost never get played live. There is so much potential for brilliance in a Petty concert (the Heartbreakers seem to get better and better as a rock band as time goes by) and yet what fans are hearing on the Mojo tour is a short show (17 songs, 90 minutes) of all radio hits, a Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac cover that has been played regularly in the past decade and four new songs from the Mojo album. The setlist has been virtually identical every night of the tour (although First Flash Of Freedom and You Wreck Me were being played earlier in the tour, they have now been dropped). There are no back-catalog rarities, no classic duets with Stevie Nicks, not a single bone thrown to the hardcore fans tired of hearing Free Fallin’ at every concert since 1989, and only one song from the quintessential Damn The Torpedoes record. We are in the times when former concert staples Here Comes My Girl and Even The Losers have become hoped-for rarities that don’t get played at all anymore. I find that astounding. Tom was even apologetic about playing King’s Highway, not exactly a rare song in the concert repertoire, because “its not a single or anything, I just thought it would be fun to play”. And 90 minutes is not even enough time to cover all the radio singles, if radio singles is all that is gonna get played. Passed over on this tour were I Need To Know, The Waiting, You Got Lucky, Don’t Do Me Like That, and Jammin’ Me. Playing all of these songs (or better yet, 5 or 6 nuggets from the past like Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, Straight Into Darkness, Change Of Heart, The Wild One Forever, etc) would add only about a half hour to the show, making it a solid and respectable two hours. If Springteen and Bob Seger can play over two hours at their ages, I'd think Petty could do the same.

But that being said, when I went to see him in Phoenix last week I had a good time and a renewed appreciation for what you get at a Petty show at the end of this decade. After all, all those radio hits are freakin’ great songs and its fun as hell to sing along with an arena full of fans, be they casual or hardcore. That renewed appreciation might have been in part due to the embarrassing experience of Chuck Berry’s opening set. You gotta give Chuck credit for still taking the stage at age 84, but he was painfully out of key on every song and seemed genuinely confused about what song was being played. He was given a loving response by the audience as befits his stature in rock ‘n’ roll history, but it was very sad to see him playing so badly. So one never knows how long the rockers will be able to keep rocking with a minimum level of competence. By comparison, Petty and the Heartbreakers, most of whom are approaching 60, sounded as much as ever like the powerhouse rock band they’ve consistently been for well over 30 years! Listen To Her Heart was as always two and a half minutes of jangly Byrdsian power pop pleasure. I Won’t Back Down is a great song of defiance no matter how many times it has been played live. The epic ending solo on Runnin’ Down A Dream was as hot as ever. So even if The Heartbreakers now ignore the vast majority of their recorded songs when they play live, at least they are still in fine form and playing well and we gotta enjoy that while we can, because it won’t last forever.

A lot of the music on Mojo was inspired by Mike Campbell’s acquisition of a classic Les Paul and Petty’s urging of Mike to cut loose guitar hero-style and get a Peter Green kind of sound. Campbell has always been an economic tone-meister of a guitarist, but at this show anytime he strapped on that Les Paul, that song instantly became heavier and dirtier. Mary Jane’s Last Dance, in particular, benefited from the Les Paul tone. The solo in Good Enough (the slow blues rave up from Mojo) was suitably killer. All the Mojo songs were played in a group about ¾ way through the show. Missing were the Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers-ish First Flash of Freedom and the lovely ballad No Reason To Cry. All in all, a satisfying show only if you take it as it comes and appreciate it for what it is.

I still dream, though, of Petty concerts in which a revolving selection of the radio hits are blended with a rotating cast of back-catalog nuggets from night to night. In this scenario, if you want to hear your favorite popular song, you might need to see a few shows, but in return you are rewarded with the chance of hearing some less-well known songs that are liked buried treasures. This keeps the fans anticipating what they might hear and presumably keeps the band from being bored by playing the same show and songs night after night after night. That is basically the exact model that The Black Crowes have been following for years in their live shows. Maybe one day, Petty will do a rarities tour in which he digs deep and shows off the impressive song catalog he has amassed over the years.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Wilco - Aspen Snowmass Festival 9/3/2010

Let me say right off that this was one of the best rock 'n' roll concerts I've ever seen. Truly, I put it up there with the best shows I've seen by U2, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Grateful Dead, The Black Crowes and others. I know that's a big statement, but its true. I found myself floored that in 2010, I can still find a rock band that can blow me away to my core. Hallelujah! And I'm very surprised that Wilco is such a band, a couple years ago, I'd never have thought that would be true. Sometimes I just miss the boat on a certain band maybe because my tastes change over time or the band develops in some way that lets me appreciate them, whatever the reason. In this case, I don’t think my tastes have changed that much, but I do think that Wilco has developed into a band that I can really get into since Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen joined in 2004 and finalized what I believe is the strongest lineup of their career. In my mind, they’ve successfully balanced the dark, arty, ambient noise-rock elements of their music with the rooted, soulful, classic Americana. I also think bandleader Jeff Tweedy is probably a happier and emotionally healthier person than he has been in the past, which naturally comes across in the music. And most importantly, I think Wilco has simply become more seasoned, skilled, and experienced while not losing any of their passion and drive.

So going up to Aspen, Colorado to see my first Wilco show since I became a fan, I had pretty high hopes and expectations for the show. I was extremely surprised, from about mid-way through the 2+ hour show until the end, to find my hopes and expectations shattered and exceeded in every way. My jaw was hanging open and I was grinning like a fool, that’s how amazed and thrilled I was at the rock brilliance I was witnessing. Wilco are frickin’ tight, especially while rocking out so hard. These guys were killing it! And all these Wilco fans were just smiling their knowing smiles and singing along like it was a commonplace experience for them (which it probably is), while I, a newcomer, was blown away, surprised even beyond what I was expecting that Wilco were this powerful! I know that seeming musical telepathy only comes from lots and lots of time playing together, which Wilco do with a relentless touring schedule of very long concerts (these guys earlier this year were doing 3+ hour 38-song two-set shows regularly). I knew they were really good based on watching the Ashes DVD, but being there in person, watching and listening to them gradually build the intensity over the course of 2 hours (a short 26 song festival set for them) truly floored me and took my appreciation to an entirely different level. Seeing this show was a lot like the first time I saw the Grateful Dead; I was filled with ecstasy and all I could think about was “When is the next time I get to see this band?!” I will now go see Wilco anywhere, anytime I am able. You never know how long a good thing like this will last. I am now kicking myself for all the times in the past 5 years that I could have seen Wilco but did not. I feel fortunate that I finally caught the Wilco train while its still going strong.
So what makes Wilco so great? Wilco play as a true rock ensemble, and by that I mean a collective of musicians who a) are trying to make their part add to the whole to make it better and b) really, really listen to one another. This, too, sounds like the Grateful Dead, but the Dead never rehearsed and they definitely took a laissez faire approach to making musical magic, while Wilco seem bent on tight arrangements but somehow with them it doesn’t sterilize the magic, it just makes it incredibly tight. Wilco’s realm is a diverse palate of American music style, also like the Dead, touching on folk, dissonant noise rock, rock ‘n’ roll, 60s pop, soul, classic R&B and a bit of country now and again. There are not a lot of solos, their music is more about hitting a rhythm groove and digging deep into it. Kingpin’s wicked slide guitar riff was so heavy and nasty, I was hearing Led Zeppelin in my head. Wilco slowly builds up a head of steam as the concert goes on and by the end of the show, that train is barreling down the tracks, unstoppably strong rock music. It’s not complicated music, but it is precise and perfectly timed. It’s not too dense, but it is rich and full in arrangements. It’s not showboaty, but the band is filled with brilliant musicians playing as hard as they can at times (Nels Cline on guitar and Glenn Kotche on drums, in particular, are madmen, just wailing on their instruments with gleeful abandon). For me, live rock music doesn’t get any better than this, folks. I don't say that lightly and keep in mind the literally hundreds of rock concerts I've seen in my life that I am favorably comparing this Wilco show to. I do believe, as a live band, I like Wilco as much as any band I’ve been able to see, and that is some pretty heady company, I’d say.
And just so you know I'm not alone in my ravings, here is a review of a London show from just last week.
So, my friends, here I am, with yet another post praising the charms of Wilco, risking boring you or being accused of unbalanced obsessiveness (fair claims, both), all in hopes of doing you a service and convincing you to get yourself to a damn Wilco show! You can thank me later.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

David Fricke of Rolling Stone Gets High On The Crowes

The Black Crowes' Say Goodnight To The Bad Guys tour has really started to roll in the past couple weeks with reportedly stellar shows in St. Louis, Columbus, Chicago, Detroit and now again in Nashville at the historic Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. While those of us hardcore fans who have not yet been to any shows on this tour resort to examining the setlists for tasty nuggets, favorites, and wished-for rarities (and there have been plenty of those already) in order to get a handle on how the tour is going, there is also the first-hand accounts of what its been like to be at the shows. Now the Crowes messageboards are full of opinionated and picky arm-chair quarterbacks and you get the typical range of comments, from the be-happy-with-whatever-they-play folks to the unsatisfiable complainers who wouldn't be happy with an entire set of unreleased songs that haven't been played in 50 years. You can take what you will from people's opinions about concerts that they didn't actually attend, but the thing that is getting me most excited is the majority of the first-hand accounts. Many fans have been reporting that regardless of what songs are being played, the band are clearly in a very positive head-space and there have been shows at which even long-time fans have been impressed and surprised at the outpouring of passion and musical intensity coming from the stage. Equally encouraging are the reports of the audience response and attitude at the best shows so far. It seems that in certain cities, the band/audience synergy has been particularly high. One fan had this to say:
I gotta say that this was one of the most exhuberant audiences I have been a part of - over the past 20 years. That place was rumbling from start to finish. I'm sure the acoustics of the Ryman had something to do with the actual VOLUME in that place but there is no escaping the fact the energy was through the roof. I was really blown away by the support of the Nashville audience and really pleased to see and feel the love for this band.

Chris was absolutely a man possessed for "Morning Song". My friend and I just looked at each other afterwards... staring in disbelief at what we had just witnessed. These guys are on fire and there is no stopping them right now. They are accomplished and happy about where they are and how loyal the fans have been and it shows.

By the way, I also saw Fricke at the show scribbling away on his notepad. He was ROCKING and it was obvious to me how much he enjoyed the show

David Fricke of Rolling Stone has been a supporter of the band in the past and his articulate review of the Nashville show paints a vivid picture of the emotional experience of being at a show on this tour. I think this is what rock 'n' roll (and church?) is at its best: a communal jubilee celebration of life using music as the vehicle for the message and the means to bring people together. I can't wait for the Fillmore in SF in December!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Alberta Cross

Another contemporary band that caught my ear. I've been circling around them for awhile now, but I'm starting to get serious as they are coming to town to play live at The Rhythm Room in Phoenix next week. Tour dates here

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dawes - Contemporary Laurel Canyon Folk Rock

Dawes - That Western Skyline

Anyone checking out Sugartown can easily see that my tastes run towards rock music as it was made in the '60s and'70s. Not all that many bands these days are riding that particular musical train. So although there are not a whole lot of contemporary bands that really do it for me, I like to highlight the ones that do grab me. I definitely have an appreciation for the Laurel Canyon sound of the late '60s, being a big fan of Gram Parsons, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Chris Hillman, etc., and mellow Southern California rootsy folk rockers Dawes seem to be right up that alley. I'm not sure I'm completely won over by all their music (its a little too laid back for my tastes and could stand a little bit more rock), but their song That Western Skyline (video in link above) definitely got my attention. Songwriting has to be really strong for me to get excited with music from this genre and I think they've hit one out of the park on this particular song. Lyrics and lead vocals by Taylor Goldsmith (sounding a little bit like Stephen Stills) are particularly strong and the music achieves a bittersweet vibe nicely, starting out gentle and soft and gradually building to a good crescendo, giving the earnest emotions a bit of dynamic ebb and flow. Good stuff. Check out more at:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Mother Hips Return To The Fillmore

Next month, on September 18th, The Mother Hips return to one of the greatest rock music venues in the world, The Fillmore in San Francisco. The band has a solid history at The Fillmore, having played there many times in their career, both headlining and opening for luminaries like Johnny Cash. They had a truimphant show there in 2002 (seen in the photo above) celebrating the release and success of the Green Hills of Earth album. The show next month promises to be full of stoked and appreciative hardcore fans, both old timers and many newcomers that the Hips have attracted in the last few years since returning from their hiatus. Word is that they will be in rehearsal especially for this show, causing speculation that some old chestnuts will be busted out. You can't go wrong with one of the Bay Area's greatest bands playing at the fantastic Fillmore!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wilco - Ashes Of American Flags

We're getting ready for a road trip to Aspen over Labor Day weekend to finally catch Wilco again. They've been in Europe for most of 2010 and we missed them last year in Tucson, so we're really excited to catch them in one of their few US shows this summer.

I've been singing the praises of this live rock concert film ever since I got turned on to it about a year ago or so and had a rock 'n' roll epiphany about what a powerhouse rock band Wilco has become live. I'd written them off after seeing what seemed like a very boring show on the rooftop of the Gibson Guitar Factory on a very very cold fall night in Memphis, TN in 2002, so this realization was a complete turn-around for me. We've watched this DVD over and over and over and always seem to be blown away, even though we know what is coming. In the above song Monday, you get Glenn Kotche's hand-pummeling pounding on the drums, the pumping horn section, Tweedy's Chuck Berry riffs and the whole band riding the fadeout hard, rocking out with abandon; this is great rock 'n' roll to my ears.

The title track of the film is a Tweedy melancholy masterpiece with a gloriously dissonant and climactic guitar solo from Nels Cline.

Wilco, at the end of this decade, have become a more balanced band. I think they've found a perfect balance between the ambient, "deconstructed" art-rock of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the early '00s (that I found boring on that Memphis night in 2002) and a more soulful sound rooted in classic American songwriting and arrangements.

For me, they really shine live. They are a true rock ensemble and its hard to hear it in their studio recordings. Their power comes from the way the parts fit together rather than from the brilliance of any individual band member's musical performance. They listen to one another and they have created tight live arrangements by playing a relentless tour schedule of 2 hour + shows for many years. The current line up is the most stable and longstanding that they've had since their beginnings in the mid '90s. Guitars (they sometimes have three at one time depending on whether Pat Sansone is playing guitar or keyboards) weave in an out of one another, hitting perfectly synchronized unison parts before Nels Cline breaks off into a frantic solo while the rhythm guitars stay synched and songs spiral up into dizzying climaxes, exploding into power rock riffing and then drifting into lyrical denouments. There is a lot of musical drama going on in their music, folks.

If you think you don't like Wilco based on their studio records, you owe it to yourself to check out this fantastic film and see what they can do live when they are firing on all cylinders.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Manassas live

Its fairly safe to say that Manassas is an underrated rock band. I wasn't really much aware of them until The Black Crowes started covering a few of their songs in 2005. We recently watched this live DVD from German TV in 1972 and were impressed at their jamming, tight rhythm grooves and the diversity of musical styles they hit on in just a handful of songs. They've got the weepy country ballad, the Latin-flavored jam, blues rock, and folky singer-songwriter stuff. Its clear after watching this just how much influence The Black Crowes have drawn from Manassas. Stephen Stills is a far better lead guitarist than I had given him credit for. He's smoking Hendrix-style on that Les Paul in the song Jet Set. Al Perkins on pedal steel is like a secret weapon and holds his own on guitar and pedal steel in the jams and rockers. What a treasure to have former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman on vocals, he sounds great with Stills, although he does look a little bit out of his element when the band starts jamming.

If you like 70s rock and you haven't listened to Manassas, this DVD is well worth checking out.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Black Crowes' Say Goodnight To The Bad Guys tour has begun!

...and if you wanna go crazy keeping track of the tour night by night in one convenient spot, this blog looks promising for being both a one-stop compendium of setlists, photos, fan reactions and YouTube videos as well as having some witty and amusing commentary on the whole Black Crowes fandom experience from an insider.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tom Petty "I Should Have Known It" video

Photo By Chris Tuite for Rolling Stone

Can I just say this video footage rocks? Getting to see the whole record-live-with-no-headphones thing REALLY brings home what a tight hard rocking band the Heartbreakers can be. I still get blown away by the power of this band when they decide to unleash it. However, being reminded how great they can be is bittersweet for me because too often in their live shows, they aren't great. I think they tend to kill their own live show by playing boring versions of the same old hits night after night, year after year. There is no spontaneity and the band certainly don't look passionate any longer when I have seen them in the past 10 years. I strongly believe that TP and the Heartbreakers have fantastic potential to be one of the best live bands of all time (like they were on the 1997 20-night Fillmore run), and IMO, they mostly throw it away when they do an arena tour. It seems to me they are playing it safe, trying to leave no fan disappointed, playing all the hits every night. Its been virtually the same concert for all tours from the past 10 years with just a handful or less of new songs thrown in each tour to differentiate them. If they'd only play live like the Black Crowes do and the Grateful Dead did (keeping a large repertoire of songs that gets greatly changed up from night to night and tour to tour) , the Heartbreakers would be one of the most smoking rock 'n' roll shows you could ever see. The recent all-live box set is ample proof of what this band is capable of. It shows that the Heartbreakers, like the Crowes and The Dead, are masters of most of the major American popular music styles (rock 'n' roll, blues, country, soul, folk). But you'd never know it if you went to see them in an arena. Its truly baffling to me why they choose to downplay their strength in favor of doing the same thing over and over and over in their live shows.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

RIP Ronnie James Dio

Another musical hero has fallen and the response from the metal world has been an outpouring of appreciation and praise for both the music and the personal ethos of the great Ronnie James Dio, former lead singer of Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and his own band Dio.
Even though my metal years for the most part are far behind me, I have always held Ronnie James in the highest esteem for his powerful, operatic metal vocals and songwriting. To me Holy Diver is still the best metal album ever made, period. His work with Black Sabbath on Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules is not far behind, either. And before that, he formed Rainbow with Ritchie Blackmore. Plus he is credited for inventing the "devil horns" hand symbol that has become synonymous with the entire genre of heavy metal. That's quite a legacy, none of which is surprising. What does surprise me is how well loved he was by so many. I had no idea guys like Lars Ulrich from Metallica and Brian May from Queen were such appreciators and fans. Apparently he had such a good heart that it seems he doesn't have a single enemy.
Certainly the music of Dio appeals only to a particular kind of music fan, the metalers who are not put off by the medieval imagery that RJD loved so much, but even so its hard to deny the metal power of the band on the Holy Diver and Last In Line tours. Check out this live take of "Stand Up And Shout" with Vivian Campbell absolutely shredding while Vinny Appice and Jimmy Bain on drums and bass brutally pound out the rhythm.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Black Crowes: new album and tour; indefinite hiatus in 2011

Didn't someone sing good things don't ever last? The Black Crowes have announced that they will take an indefinite hiatus at the end of this year. This is sad news for me, The Crowes have, in the last 5 years, become one those bands that, frankly, I just can't seem to get enough of. Its gonna be hard to not have "the next show" to look forward to for a long time. Thankfully, the rest of the year will be full of Black Crowes shows, including a 6 night run at the Fillmore in SF to close out the year.

The band members have put a lot of collective thought into this and have probably been planning it for some while, based on the fact that their soon to be released album and the 2010 tour are being presented as a massive and heartfelt "thank you" to every fan the Black Crowes have ever had. Even better news is that most of the shows in the late summer and fall will be three hour affairs, with an hour and a half acoustic set and then an hour and a half electric set.

Full tour details on cities, dates, on-sale dates as well as news about the soon-to-be-released acoustic greatest hits double album Croweology can be found in this press release.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Black Sabbath doing the heavy in 1970

This video came across my path recently and it reminded me of how great Black Sabbath were in their prime. Not like all us 70s rock fans don't know that already, but its good to be reminded of it, especially with some fantastic live footage. Its amazing to me what could be done with just guitar, bass, drums and vocals. I'm trying to think of something articulate to say about what made Sabbath so killer. Nothing really needs to be said when the music is this good and overpowering. Bill Ward is killing it on drums. With Geezer Butler on bass, its a formidable rhythm section. Iommi and Ozzy doing their thing. Simple, basic, and gloriously heavy! Getting labeled as demonic (not that they didn't project that image themselves) when really they were espousing late 60s hippie values, albeit with dark, plodding, war-hammer heavy music.

It does occur to me that there will probably never be another era in rock music like the early 70s. So much drama coming from the music and the music only. This is how rock is supposed to be and I don't care if I sound like an old curmudgeon if I say that very few rock bands today seem to have any clue about how to do it. How could there possibly have been so many legendary, groundbreaking bands peaking all in the same few years? What insane combination of unlikely variables had to come together perfectly for this serendipity to happen? Its an understatement to say that they don't make rock music like this anymore.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Goodbye and Godspeed, Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton has died, so I will listen to his music with Big Star, which I haven't listened to in some time. I will remember how good the music of Big Star has made me feel and the happiness and joy it has brought to me. I feel especially fortunate to have seen Big Star play live twice when I was living in their hometown, Memphis, Tennessee and also that I got to tell Jody Stephens and Alex how much their music means to me and how gracious they were. In spite of Chilton's reputation for being moody or gruff, he was open and friendly to me and I appreciated that alot.

Fans of the genre known as power pop that Big Star is the uber-touchstone of know the feeling well: the simple pleasures of a catchy pop song with bright and chimey guitars and lots of harmony singing. If you don't know the music of Big Star, just think about a bunch of American guys in the early 70s who just wanted to make music like The Beatles and other mid 60s British Invasion bands. It came out just a little different, the guitars were a bit dirtier, the music was just a tad more ramshackle, with a bit of a barroom swagger. Simply wonderful stuff, short lived, underappreciated in its time, endlessly influential to a whole cadre of 80s bands 10 years later. Do yourself a favor and check out some Big Star.

Big Star September Gurls

Thursday, February 25, 2010

New Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers album and tour! has posted a new track called Good Enough that will be on the forthcoming Heartbreakers album Mojo. On first listen this sounds really fantastic. It starts out as a dirge-like slow blues and morphs into a wicked Mike Campbell blues guitar solo rave up. Campbell has always been a tone-meister rather than a smoking soloist, and fittingly enough his tone on this track is great, sounding quite different than the last few albums, but this is a blistering solo as well!

Pollstar has also posted a full tour schedule for North America in the Spring of 2010!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

John Bonham

There really is no disputing that John Bonham is in the top five of all-time greatest rock drummers and its not hard to make a case for him being numero uno on that list. If you are at all a fan of rock music, this is not new information to you.
But its good to be reminded now and then why we hold the greats in such high esteem. Its not just because of their reputation, its really because of the things they did to earn the reputation in the first place.

So give this a viewing and then bow down before the mighty, mighty, mighty JOHN BONHAM!

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Mother Hips - Pacific Dust

The Mother Hips Pacific Dust

Camera Records, 2009

It is a common notion that there is an unavoidable trade-off between youth and experience in rock bands: the newly emerged have the unbridled energy and drive without the experience to keep things solid while the ones who have been around awhile might not burn as hot as they once did, but have the well-honed skill in their craft to make up for it. One could make a claim for this to be true with the Mother Hips in 2009, nearing 20 years together as a band and having just released their seventh studio album, Pacific Dust. There is something to be credited to survivors in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, at least to the ones who have done it with their artistic integrity intact. Who knows if the apparent wisdom comes from having survived or if the survival is a result of inherent wisdom? But few could argue with the experience of hearing such a band playing live in a room. Not many fans of good rock music seeing the Mother Hips for the first time can deny their quality. And if it’s true that they are now not as reckless and hell- bent as they once were, there is certainly an assuredly skilled and confident air to the way they perform, more than there was when they were starting out.

Pacific Dust is sonically a near-perfect presentation of the sound of The Mother Hips, and by that I mean the sound that happens when these four men are in the same room singing and playing together with no overdubs or studio trickery. Pacific Dust sounds as if the listener is in the sweet spot of an acoustically perfect venue while the band plays deep in a groove without technical worries or other distractions, utterly owning their songs. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Tim Bluhm recently attributed this quality of Pacific Dust partly to The Hips’ ability, developed over years, to easily get the sounds they want out of their instruments and voices, but also to their familiarity with both San Francisco’s Mission Bells studio (of which Bluhm is co-owner) and their producer David Simon Baker (another co-owner of Mission Bells) which enabled them to capture the sounds far quicker than is typical and thus the band were still fresh and excited for each performance. As a result, Pacific Dust sounds not only assured, confident and effortless, but also very alive and intimate, like at a great rock show, as well as rich and lush like a great pop record. This is the true sound of The Mother Hips!

Many of the themes on this record reflect the places the songwriters of the Mother Hips find themselves in at this point in their lives: with wives and children and homes of their own; more settled and rooted than ever before. If that is a cliché of getting older, so be it. Bluhm and Greg Loiacono (lead guitar/vocals/songwriting) still write about this state of things with articulate artistry. Other reviewers have detected a theme of gratitude on this record and indeed it feels like The Mother Hips, having survived lineup changes, stylistic phases, personal demons related to the rock ‘n’ roll “indoor” lifestyle and the dreaded indefinite hiatus, have an immense gratefulness to still be making music together and to still have a modestly sized but deeply devoted audience. It is for all of these reasons together that Pacific Dust feels like both a milestone and a triumph simultaneously.

The record opens with key cut White Falcon Fuzz (inspired by the White Falcon guitar in the foldout inside cover of Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush LP), a rumination on the transfiguring power of music and how it can shape lives. It is both a looking back to the origins of the inspiration to pick up a guitar and an assessment of a musician’s place in the world after 20 years of being in a band. Although overstuffed with non-stop lyrics that barely give him time to breathe, Bluhm sings it seemingly effortlessly. The opening riff is crunchy, the guitar interplay is intriguing, the rhythm is kept cracking and sharp by the perfect timing and minimalist flair of drummer John Hofer and the mid-tempo song is held together by the melodic and complex bass playing from resident musical genius Paul Hoaglin. The backing choral vocals and ending guitar solo make this song soar, feeding off the simple joys of being satisfied and happy with all the good things in one’s life. The positive outlook is palpable and it is clear from the beginning of this album that The Mother Hips are personally and artistically in a very good place right now.

Thinking that our love will last is thinking that the part of our love that lasts is gonna be the good part… any legacy of mine is gonna be sunshine and I leave it behind as a sign of my love for mankind

All In Favor is Loiacono’s take on the same theme and is thus a kind of companion piece to White Falcon Fuzz, looking back at the personal life of the band with an honest, critical perspective

…the path of self-destruction -unlimited buffoonery in the dark …in beautiful theaters with their lights so blue and orange to help us feel important for awhile…our van caught on fire just like our egos…

but also looks forward with what may be either a sobering or promising thought for fans of this band:

“How long can music last?” She whispered into my ear

Pacific Dust hits its stride in earnest with the one-two power pop punch of Bluhm’s Jess OXOX and Loiacono’s The Lion and The Bull leaving me staggering, smiling and head-shaking at the pure pleasure delivered by melody, hooks, and harmonies that would make Jeff Lynne envious. And this is nothing new for The Mother Hips, they’ve been doing it for years. They firmly deserve a place in the music history texts beside ELO, Badfinger, Big Star, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, etc. as purveyors of sweet pop songs in the tradition of great 60s rock ‘n’ roll. When Bluhm and Loiacono jump a decade to emulate 70s AM radio on songs like One Way Out, Cheer Up Champ and All In Favor, I get the feeling it’s done with the utmost sincerity and honest appreciation for the genre. But the smooth and glossy sheen of these songs is tempered by the surprisingly bittersweet lyrical themes that are there for those not completely spellbound by the pop brilliance of the music. From the emotionally and physically wounded letter-writer who is the narrator of Jess OXOX to the relationship tensions of The Lion and The Bull to the Taoist/go-with-the-flow way of handling obstacles of One Way Out, these are pop songs with substance and true-to-life realism about human existence.

Although many of these songs brim with positivity, it’s not of a Pollyanna sort. Life for a moderately successful national-level rock band is surely not any easier now than it was 20 years ago. In fact, particularly in these times of economic problems, it may be harder. But The Mother Hips seem better equipped to handle the struggles of daily life as a rock band and to do so with a smile, even if it’s sometimes a wry laugh at one’s own foibles and idiosyncracies (“not that I need to get down any more than I already am, Henry the VIII made a much better friend”). All too often people are the biggest obstacle to their own contentedness in life. It seems that awareness of this has helped these songwriters become very content and comfortable with themselves and their positions in life as much so as they are as musicians in the studio and on the stage. But there is also darkness, anger, and discouragement on Pacific Dust, too. Third Floor Story, a 10 year old song about the tribulations of the music business, is a pulsating, percolating, snarling funk rocker rerecorded to finally appear on a Mother Hips album. Cheer Up Champ shows that a feeling of failure still sometimes haunts even the most talented of artists:

I can’t win it seems I can’t catch up to my dreams ‘cause its me that I’m fighting I’m riding back from a bad show I’m licking my wounds, yeah you know how it goes

But it’s also a self-pep talk (“cheer up, champ, at least you still got your health”) with the idea that feelings can be changed by changing one’s thoughts (“I’m able to sing because I’m able to fly…when the morning comes I’ll find my wings”) and thus brings us back to the positivity the album opens with.

Playing spot the influence in the music of The Mother Hips is an easy game. Obvious reference points for their original music include Neil Young, Merle Haggard, The Beach Boys, The Everly Brothers, The Bee Gees (in the 60s), and The Kinks. The Beatles’ legacy of influence, however, is rarely mentioned when people write about The Mother Hips and that is puzzling to me, because when you watch them play, just two guitars, three singers, bass, drums, and hear the rich and melodic sounds they make with just this simple arsenal of musical tools, the similarities are almost too obvious. The Beatles influence rises to the surface on the George Harrison-ish (courtesy of resident Beatle freak Hoaglin) slide guitar solo on One Way Out, the Abbey Road-like backing vocals on Cheer Up Champ and the string sections on All In Favor and Young Charles Ives.

There was a time in stonier days when the Hips dealt out quite a bit of dark psychedelia. And then there followed a time when that style of music became anathema to them as they aggressively resisted the jam band/hippie label. In 2009, the Hips seem to have come to peaceful terms with this facet of their music, reviving some of their older, extended jamming songs in their live show and even better, composing new songs in this vein. The title track of Pacific Dust, with its leaden, slow, and heavy riff is all early 70s proto-metal (think Black Sabbath , Spooky Tooth, Budgie, etc) was a rehearsal jam turned into a full fledged song by adding a melody and lyrics. Cheer Up Champ’s coda surprisingly morphs into a Cortez The Killer-like guitar jam, all dark, slow and drenched in feedback. In accordance with the theme of this record, the Hips seem grateful for where music has taken them in their lives and they no longer feel the need to shy away from any part of their musical past.

For me, not quite hitting the bullseye but coming close, the third quarter of the album is a bit of a lull. Young Charles Ives is a lyrically and musically interesting historical fiction piece from Loiacono about the childhood of the famed avant garde composer while Bluhm’s Are You Free, with its 80s synth arrangement lacks the immediate attractiveness of other songs on the record.

In spite of the strong opening, the brilliant mid-section and the third quarter lull, the album manages to reach its pinnacle at its finish, closing with a rare Loicacono-penned stone power-rocker, Bandit Boy, all nasty, heavy, guitar riffs and scorching vocals that make me want to fist-pump and shout in stoke followed by the clean, smooth white man’s 70s soul ballad/Neil Young noise-rock fadeaway, Bluhm’s Cheer Up Champ. These album closers, one from each of the principle songwriters in the band, again feel like companion pieces as they both delve into the psyche for some hard-earned insight about finding a Zen-like peace in life and/or integrating body, mind and soul. Musically they cap off the album, saving the best for last and leave me satisfied, grinning like a fool, convinced that one of the most talented and underrated rock bands of the last 20 years is still on top of their game, still mixing up nearly all of the music they are capable of into a strong album, polished, solid and head and shoulders above most of what passes for good rock music in the early 21st century.

White Falcon Fuzz video

Third Floor Story video

Pacific Dust video